How to Manage Depression During Cancer Treatment

Receiving the diagnosis that you have cancer is one of the most devastating things any person can face.  Not only is it a shock to hear the news, but you are immediately confronted with your own mortality and all of the emotions that come along with the desire to survive cancer.  You may have immediate images of friends of family members who have been diagnosed with cancer, and what they underwent during cancer treatment as well as what their outcome was.  Additionally, regardless of your specific diagnosis, stage, or prognosis, undergoing treatment as well as dealing with the effects that cancer has on the human body can be incredibly trying.  You likely feel ill, tired, frustrated, sad and, for many cancer patients, depressed.  Depression is incredibly common amongst cancer patients because of the nature of the disease and the physical and emotional exhaustion from battling against cancer.  While not everyone who has cancer will become depressed, it is understandable why many patients do.  Family members and physicians need to regularly check in with their patients to see if the cancer patient is becoming depressed because not only will this affect their ability to fight cancer, but it can impact their lives negatively in other ways as well.  The National Cancer Institute discusses how common depression is in cancer patients and signs that a patient may have progressed from being sad or frustrated about a diagnosis to depressed, “Depression is a comorbid disabling syndrome that affects approximately 15% to 25% of cancer patients. Depression is believed to affect men and women with cancer equally, and gender-related differences in prevalence and severity have not been adequately evaluated.  Individuals and families who face a diagnosis of cancer will experience varying levels of stress and emotional upset. Depression in patients with cancer not only affects the patients themselves but also has a major negative impact on their families.  A survey in England of women with breast cancer showed that among several factors, depression was the strongest predictor of emotional and behavioral problems in their children. Fear of death, disruption of life plans, changes in body image and self-esteem, changes in social role and lifestyle, and financial and legal concerns are significant issues in the life of any person with cancer, yet serious depression or anxiety is not experienced by everyone who is diagnosed with cancer… Examples of maladaptive coping behaviors include avoidant or negative coping, negative self-coping statements, preoccupation with physical symptoms, and catastrophizing.”  Spotting depression in cancer patients may be difficult because most cancer patients will exhibit, to some degree, many common symptoms of depression because they are sad, frustrated or scared.  But, when symptoms escalate or do not diminish after a period of time, it may be time to discuss depression with the cancer patient and talk about dealing with depression with a physician.  It is important to explore all treatment options with a physician as each individual experiences different symptoms associated with their depression.  Medscape describes potential treatment options, “Depression in patients with cancer is best managed utilizing a combination of supportive psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral techniques, and antidepressant medications. Psychosocial interventions are used to help individuals, families, and groups. The general objective of such therapy is to improve coping skills through educational, behavioral, or psychodynamic approaches. Cognitive-behavioral approaches explore patients’ beliefs about the cancer diagnosis and its treatment in order to elicit irrational or unhelpful thoughts that lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and attempt to correct these maladaptive thoughts along with providing new coping behaviors (eg, relaxation). Group and individual treatment have been demonstrated to be effective in reducing depressive symptoms and distress and in improving quality of life.”  If you are a cancer patient or you know someone who is that is dealing with symptoms of depression, it is important to address the symptoms right away with a physician to discuss treatment options so that you or your friend or family member can be in the best of health while undergoing cancer treatment.

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